We thought it would be a peaceful hike in the forest on that fine autumn day, until we heard a distant explosion ahead.
“What’s that?” you asked.
“Maybe they’re dynamiting an old tree,” I said, “before it falls over on someone. Or getting some boulders out of the way for a hiking trail.”
“That didn’t sound like dynamite. More like a grenade.”
I’m not a connoisseur of explosives like you are — they all sound alike to me — so I just nodded. “I don’t think the Forest Service typically uses those for trail maintenance, but maybe they’re getting creative.”
A family of raccoons burst out of the bushes and rushed past us. The mother stopped to give us a stern look, as if warning us, then followed her brood down the hill. We continued along the trail. A pair of jays swooped overhead and scolded us, trying to dissuade us from entering the woods, before flying off. A squirrel scurried along a branch and paused to chitter at us, then raced away in the direction the raccoons and jays had taken.
“I couldn’t quite make that out,” you said, “but it seemed frightened.”
“You’d think they were all running from a forest fire, but there’s no smoke. And why would they stop to warn us?”
“Must be some danger up ahead.”
“That explosion. And you want to go see.”
“We’re headed that way, so why not?”
I had no answer, except the standard one about avoiding life-threatening situations, which seemed too alarmist given that we were enjoying the first clear day after a week of rain, with no chilling breeze to set the spine tingling, or dark clouds to foreshadow imminent doom. I shrugged and said okay.
We hadn’t gone far before we heard a rustling to our right. A gray wolf was limping through the brush, obviously hurt. Its fur had blood on it.
“Can we do something for it?” I asked, stepping off the trail toward the wolf. It paused and regarded us calmly as it considered whether to trust us, perhaps sensing our concern. We got close enough to see it was bleeding from several spots on one side of its body.
“Those look like shrapnel wounds.” You knelt to touch its fur but it shied away in pain, then thought better of asking for our help and stumbled off into the trees.
We proceeded with caution after that.
Around the next bend we crossed a broad meadow. If we hadn’t been keeping our eyes peeled for anything unusual we might have missed the camp. Off to the left about fifty yards from the trail stood two canvas tents in the shade of a large oak tree whose leaves were just beginning to turn. I got out my field glasses for a closer look. Besides the tents — one large enough to stand up in — the campsite was furnished with a table, two chairs, a campstove and a couple of long wooden crates — too much stuff to carry in, so whoever was staying there must have come on horseback.
“It seems quiet,” I said. “I don’t see anyone.”
“And the horses are gone. Let’s keep going.”
About fifteen minutes later the trees began to thin out as we approached a clearing. We heard a whinny ahead and stopped, then turned into the trees on our left and found a spot where we could see what was going on, while staying hidden behind some scrub oak.
Across the clearing a meeting was taking place. Two men were conversing with a few white-tailed deer, all bucks. Nearby stood a pair of saddled Quarter Horses and a brown mare used as a pack horse, quietly grazing or nibbling on twigs.
The guy doing the talking — mostly through hand-waving sign language — was tall, stocky and bald, dressed in khaki pants, gray t-shirt, hunting vest, and military-style boots. He sported a hard-eyed, mercenary look he probably got from Soldier of Fortune magazine. His associate was shorter, with black hair, glasses, dark pants and white polo shirt. He seemed to be the technical expert.
They were arms dealers, but they weren’t trading Springfield rifles for buffalo hides like in the old days. They were peddling something much more deadly.
I handed you the binoculars. “Tell me what you make of that.”
You looked, then drew in a breath. “It’s a launcher for RPGs,” you whispered. “They have it on some kind of stand.”
We could only assume why the deer wanted rocket-propelled grenades. No doubt they were tired of being preyed on by wolves, and realized they didn’t need to be faster or grow bigger antlers, they just needed modern weapons to keep their enemies at bay. The evolutionary arms race had taken a dark turn.
Since the deer couldn’t hoist the launcher into firing position and pull the trigger, the men had built a frame to hold the device at about shoulder height and horizontal to the ground. It was mounted on a swivel mechanism and the trigger was connected to a footswitch. Clever. They had clearly worked hard to earn their customer’s business, offering a product specifically designed for hoofed ruminants.
“Well,” I said, “that’s a pretty effective defense — what biologists would call anti-predator adaptation.”
I took the glasses back and saw one of the bucks pick up a burlap bag in its teeth and give it to the bigger guy, who I assumed was the leader. He opened it for a quick look inside, nodded and smiled. The deal was done. I noticed a couple of the deer were painted a camouflage pattern to help them blend into the foliage. I guess the brownish-tan hide nature had given them wasn’t good enough anymore. I wondered what magazine they’d been reading.
On a hunch, I looked along the edge of the clearing on our side and saw evidence of destruction — a pine with some lower branches blown off and a shallow crater in the ground nearby — probably from a demonstration of the grenade launcher, and the cause of the explosion we had heard earlier, which had injured the wolf we met.
The men saddled up and headed back along the trail in the direction of their camp. Most of the bucks left as well.
“When did the deer get so aggressive?” I asked.
“When they acquired the means to buy those things.”
“How? Gold, you think?” I couldn’t tell what was in the bag the deer handed over.
You gave me a look. “Their hooves aren’t exactly suited to panning for gold. No, it’s something else — we’ll find out later. But we must stop this.”
I was about to agree, then hesitated, caught in a philosophical quandary.
After all, between nature lovers invading their territory, hunters shooting at them every year in the fall, and environmentalists lobbying for the reintroduction of wolves everywhere, the deer have gotten a raw deal. What was wrong with helping tip the balance of power in their favor? Seems they have as much right as anyone to buy weapons on the black market and protect their families.
You noticed my hesitation. “We have to discourage those men from setting up shop here. Look, we know how this goes. It’s only a matter of time before the wolves catch on and decide to regain the upper hand. So they’ll make a deal for some kind of arms or electronic countermeasures or… I don’t know… something.”
“Maybe a squadron of drones,” I suggested, “to locate their prey without all that sniffing and tracking. I mean, why leave your den when you can hunt deer from the air?”
“Right. Then the squirrels and rabbits would want to arm themselves against owls and hawks and wolves, who’d have to upgrade to more powerful defenses if they don’t want to starve.”
I pictured squirrels dropping acorn-size bombs from the trees. Then a scenario bloomed in my mind — the forest full of creatures running about in pitched battle, wearing armor and wielding explosives — birds dive bombing and releasing laser-guided missiles, snakes parachuting onto unprotected nests from above, rabbits laying remote-controlled traps, porcupines with incendiary projectile quills…
“… and once raccoons obtain weapons-grade plutonium,” I muttered, “we’re all doomed.” I snapped out of the vision. “Okay, I see how it can escalate.”
“And the only ones who win are the arms dealers. Not like that’s news.”
“What can we do? Maybe scare them off somehow, or go mess up their camp.”
“That gives me an idea.”
We crept back to the trail, crossed to the other side of the clearing, then made our way silently through the trees until we crouched down within a stone’s throw of where the meeting had taken place. The stand with the grenade launcher was still there, now manned by a lone sentry — a ten-point buck who peered out through the bushes, waiting for the next wolf to come by. The plan was for me to lure him away from his post so we could take the weapon, but I couldn’t think of a good way to distract him.
Finally I said, “Let’s try the direct approach.”
I stood up and began walking toward him. The sound of my footsteps startled the poor guy, who seemed nervous about being left alone to watch for wolves. He shot me a wide-eyed look, then sprang away and disappeared into the woods.
Once the thudding of his hooves had faded in the distance I turned back to you and said, “Well, that was easy.” Deer may be shrewd, but they lack military discipline when it comes to guarding their field artillery.
You caught up with me. “We’d better hurry before he comes back with his buddies.”
Three RPGs lay on the ground, and one was in the launcher. You gathered those while I picked up the custom-made frame. The contraption was awkward to carry — the launcher was bolted in and couldn’t be easily removed — but I was too excited to complain, considering the firepower we had just acquired.
We lugged the stolen weaponry back to the meadow, making a detour far off the trail so we couldn’t be seen from the arms dealers’ camp, and found a spot in the trees on the opposite side of the meadow, about a hundred yards away.
The two men were milling about, busy with something. Their horses were still saddled, suggesting they would soon head out again, so we laid low and waited. A short while later they rode off, probably to go visit other prospects. Once they were gone we dragged the stand out into the open with a clear shot at the tents.
“Before we blow up their camp,” I said, “I want to go check something.”
“It will take me a few minutes to get this thing set up. Don’t be long.”
I jogged over and quickly found what I was looking for — the burlap bag containing whatever treasure the deer had used as payment — stashed under a cot in the larger tent. I grabbed it and left everything else alone, though I paused to consider a crate that was rather tempting. I also checked the other tent, just to make sure the camp was deserted.
When I got back, you saw the bag I was carrying and nodded in approval. I stuck it in my daypack. We’d open it later.
“All set?” I asked.
“Stand back over here. These things travel at more than four hundred feet per second, so it’ll be quick.”
“There’s a crate labeled ‘RPG’ in the bigger tent.”
You raised your eyebrows and said, “This should be interesting,” then pressed the footswitch.
The grenade shot out with a fwoosh and in less than a second the main tent was obliterated, then came the secondary blast from the box of explosives, which wiped out the whole campsite and shook the forest. We didn’t worry about starting a fire — everything was still damp after all the rain.
“Do we need to shoot another one?” I asked. I was hoping for a turn.
You shook your head, but loaded another grenade anyway and swiveled the launcher to aim it at the trail. Sure enough, a couple minutes later the two men came galloping back to see what had happened. They looked distraught as they trotted toward the ruins of the campsite. You kept them in your sights.
“Over here!” I yelled to them, waving my arms, so they’d know who was responsible. They turned their horses in our direction and the big guy pulled out a pistol. Then they recognized the grenade launcher they had sold to the deer, and saw where it was aimed. That stopped them.
“Do you want another demonstration?” I shouted across the meadow.
They looked confused for a second. “What do you want? You want money?”
“We want you to go,” you said. “Stay out of the forest. Leave the deer alone.”
Except for the threat of blowing them up, we didn’t have much authority to demand anything of them, but it was worth a try. Maybe they’d think we were zealous eco-warriors who would stop at nothing to save the animals and trees. I decided to try that tack.
“If you do not leave now,” I proclaimed, raising my fist, “we and all our fellow druid-soldiers will hunt you down and exact the justice of the forest. For we are the protectors of nature, warriors of the woods, bound and sworn to defend and preserve the mystic balance that has ruled this land since time out of mind — and you shall not pass this way again!”
A bit too literary perhaps — you furrowed your brow at me as I delivered my speech — but it was fun to say. And it did the trick.
“All right, all right,” the lead guy said. “We’ll go.” He turned to his partner and said, “Crazy weirdos. Let’s get out of here.” They wheeled their horses around and rode off.
Later that day we informed the authorities — Forest Service, FBI, county sheriff — gave them what evidence we had and told them where to find the remains of the campsite, then we washed our hands of the problem. Let the various agencies fight over whose jurisdiction it was and what to do about the situation. A ranger told us they had found the injured wolf and taken it to a local vet for treatment. Apparently forest animals get free health care.
We finally got a chance to open the mysterious burlap bag.
Since our hike had been interrupted, we opted for a late afternoon picnic in a city park, near the sheriff’s office we had just visited. Once we finished our sandwiches, I pulled out the bag and set it on the table. It was about the size and weight of five billiard balls, not heavy enough to be silver or gold.
I did the honors and reached in to grab a handful of what seemed to be rocks — chalky, yellowish-green color overall, a little rough in texture, with a few spots that had been chipped off to reveal a dark glasslike surface. I was disappointed.
“Why would arms dealers want these? They’re not even precious gems.” I held one to my nose. It had a pleasant, aromatic smell. “Seems to be amber, which can’t be that valuable.”
You picked up a piece and frowned as you rolled it around in your fingers and examined it from all sides. Then your eyes widened. You stood, held the piece up in direct sunlight, and gasped as the smooth part glowed an intense fluorescent blue.
“This is blue amber! But it can’t be…”
Blue amber only comes from Dominican Republic — supposedly — from a tree that’s long been extinct. That’s what makes it so rare, and so expensive.
“The deer must have discovered a new source here,” I said, “maybe deep in the forest. Those critters get into all sorts of places — if they’re not raiding your garden they’re off digging up some fossilized tree resin.”
You pulled out another piece from the bag and hefted it in your hand. “This stuff sells for more than gold.”
“Well, at least we now know what the blue-amber to grenade-launcher exchange rate is.” I wasn’t sure when that would come in handy.
“Yes, but look…” You chewed your lower lip and did some calculating. “Could the deer get more of this? And what would they want in trade?”
“Other than military-grade anti-wolf weapons? I can’t say.”
“Let’s go find out.”